Yuki Kawauchi, winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon, probably does not think of himself as a sumo wrestler. Sumo, after all, is a sport which generally rewards mass, the more the better, and marathoning does not.
But a smart and skilled wrestler can sometimes find a way to get a heavier opponent unbalanced and outside the ring, thus winning a match when they were not expected to. And it turns out that Boston, more than most other world-class marathons due to its quirky Hopkinton-to-Boston course and unpredictable April weather, can be a lot more like a sumo match than it is like a track race.
This coming Monday, April 15th, will be the 123rd running of the Boston Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label road race, but in 2018, temperatures near freezing and driving rain made the event resemble an extremely protracted cross country event. Kawauchi used this as an opportunity to draw his heavyweight competitors out of their race plans, make them uncomfortable very early in the race, and then capitalise on their discomfort just when the course was most challenging. Kawauchi’s nominally faster colleagues were unable to use their speed to knock him out of the ring.
Kawauchi might not have the same levers at his disposal this year, but the forecast of rain and the prospect of being wrong-footed by a wily underdog will make a lot of athletes cautious.
Starting with Kawauchi, five of the last six men to win the Boston Marathon are back this year, going back to 2012 champion Wesley Korir; the exception, 2014 champion Mebrahtom Keflezighi, is the grand marshal.
Of the five running, none may be easily dismissed. Kawauchi is unlikely to be underestimated again. Geoffrey Kirui, the 2017 Boston and world champion, and Lelisa Desisa, last fall’s New York City champion and 2013 and 2015 Boston winner, have both demonstrated the tactics to win a marathon run as much with the head as the legs. Korir has not shown his 2012 form more recently, but like Kawauchi he won on a day when hot conditions took many runners out of their comfort zone, much like Lemi Berhanu did in 2016.
It’s telling, with this in mind, that Boston’s release announcing their elite field introduced athletes new to Boston in terms of what they’d won elsewhere, not their PBs. But with the sumo wrestlers in mind, the two heavyweights of the field by PB are Lawrence Cherono, who ran 2:04:06 in Amsterdam last year, and Sisay Lemma, whose 2:04:08 came from Dubai. Dubai winners have done curiously well in Boston, considering the two races couldn’t be much more different and both still be marathons, but Cherono also has a course-record win from Honolulu, another race which has historically been a good indicator for Boston success.
Linden vs Kiplagat in the women’s race
The key factor for the leading women is consistency. Defending champion Desiree Linden asserts that she’s stronger and better-prepared this year than she was in 2018, when victory came from being the only athlete among the leaders not crushed under the conditions. Linden’s win came after a lengthy series of top-10 finishes in Boston, most notably a second place in 2011 race where Linden contended for the win up to the last few metres of the race. Among the top women, few have Linden’s accumulated experience with the Boston course: she is the only one whose PB came in Boston (2:22:38, from 2011).
None have 2017 champion Edna Kiplagat’s experience winning championship-style races, either. Though Kiplagat boasts the second-fastest PB in the field (a 2:19:50 from London in 2012) she also claims two World Championship victories, from 2011 and 2013.
While Kiplagat and Linden play the wily veterans, it’s less simple to compare the others. Boston’s 2015 and 2012 winners (Caroline Rotich and Sharon Cherop, respectively) are returning to Hopkinton for another try, but without the kind of recent performances they had before their victories.
Aselefech Mergia, Mare Dibaba, and Worknesh Degefa all have sub-2:20 PBs from Dubai. Degefa’s PB of 2:17:41 - the fastest non-winning women’s marathon ever - came just this past January, so the question she raises is not so much how fast she might be, but whether she can bottle that particular lightning again so soon.
Most of these athletes exist at the opposite end of the athletic spectrum from sumo wrestlers, but on Monday the best of them will follow some of the same basic patterns: keep your balance, and don’t get too far ahead of your feet. But if you can draw your opponents into overbalancing, it won’t matter how fast their PB was.
Parker Morse for the IAAF